I don’t know about you but for the past couple of years I’ve really struggled with prolonged concentration. Whether it’s on work, a book or some puzzle, I find that after a few minutes of focus, I’m distracted.
When I was a kid I used to love reading. When I wasn’t playing computer games, I would sit around the house and just read for hours. Now, I struggle to concentrate on a book for a solid 15 minutes before I’m looking around me and checking my phone. Even before then, my mind was wandering away from the words on the page.
For a while I pointed at work, saying a 24/7 online lifestyle is unhealthy as your mind is always split between what is happening in front of you and what’s happening on your phone. Now that may be true, but it’s not the only reason for this lack of concentration.
It feels like losing control, like you’re on autopilot drifting through time. Quite a scary feeling when you look back at weeks, months and years wondering where they went.
Worst part is, even when you know you can’t concentrate, when you’re losing control and drifting, it’s so difficult to bring yourself back and be ‘present’. 64% of millennials believe that being present is the most important thing they look for in personal relationships, but what does that even mean and how can we do that?
My quest for answers lead me to seeing my phone as the enemy. For many people it’s the last thing we look at before we go to sleep, the first thing we look at when we wake up and the thing we spend every moment of ‘idle’ time looking at.
So I went on a cleanse, got rid of every notification on all my devices, no menus, no alerts, nothing begging me to click on it. I was now undisturbed, uninterrupted and uncontactable (sorry, not sorry) unless I made the ““conscious”” decision to look at my phone.
Yet the problem persisted, I still couldn’t concentrate.
So What Is It?
Seek and you shall find: I just finished a book called The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. Carr himself is a man struggling with reduced concentration and within the book he even recounts that in order to actually finish writing it, he had to move to the countryside away from cellphone reception and starve himself of access to the Internet.
Within The Shallows, Carr explores a number of ideas about how the Internet and new technologies influence our brains. He introduces the concept of the very plastic, very malleable human brain as being as much influenced by what goes in as HOW it goes in.
Reading and concentrating on a single linear piece of writing invokes an experience called deep reading and this in turn promotes deep thinking. This whole process requires that the mind be fixated on the words being consumed and it assists in actually comprehending what we’re reading. Deep reading allows us to grasp concepts, link ideas and remember information; it’s essential to learning.
Contrasting this is how we typically read information online: scanning. Following the well-documented F-shape, we tend to read the first line, skim down, read one more line, skim down and try to get a grasp of what we’re reading (maybe that’s how you read this article and you didn’t even see this line).
“We don’t see the forest when we search the Web. We don’t even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves.”
Carr goes into great depth about the different processes that are happening within our brain during these different methods and concludes with the point we are evolving from: “being cultivators of personal knowledge to being hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest.”
As the incredible adaptation machines we are, frequently reading of online articles, scanning and clicking through hyperlinks actually changes the wiring of our brains to be more adept at finding relevant information and assessing its credibility, but less able to consume a single linear piece.
There’s a lot more to the book: a serious look at what Carr calls the “Church of Google” and a number of interesting points about the improbability of human-level AI. Definite recommendation for anyone struggling with concentration or interested in understanding better what’s happening inside your head as you read this sentence.
How to Reclaim Your Brain?
Be aware of what you’re doing. If you feel yourself yearning to look at your phone, realise that yearn. If you’re 20 minutes into working through a spreadsheet and you feel your hands moving to the browser to check Facebook for the 20th time today, notice that about yourself. Concentrate.
It’s pretty obvious that our lives are only going to get more and more digitised, we’re going to continue to spend more and more time online using increasingly smarter and more sophisticated devices that draw us in to their beautiful warm glow and convenience.
Carr’s warning stands as the only realistic solution to this problem.
Whenever we use a technology, we give up something up.
The Internet is an incredible tool and resource, computers saves lives help people everyday, but they also take a little bit away from us. These machines become an extension of ourselves as we are able to harness their power, but in doing so, we also become an extension of them.
These thoughts can be a bit scary; I know I never willingly decided to give up my ability to concentrate in order to watch cat videos on YouTube. But there is a really important part about knowing this is happening to us, and that is that we in turn are capable of reducing its effect on us.
In knowing we are making this trade, we are able to make more informed decisions about it and with enough practice, maybe in the future we’ll choose to pick up a book instead of scan-read a summary online, or just look out the window instead of staring at a screen.
Note: Carr also wrote a really interesting article with some of the main ideas from his book: Is Google Making Us Stupid.